Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When the Saints Come Marching in...

An appreciation to all my Brothers and Sisters who, through Christ, spoil me so!
Every morning around the same time as the sun is rising, my father comes into my room and kisses me on the cheek, though I'm still sleeping.
Every night, my mom comes and kneels next to my bed, and we say our bedtime prayers…Our Father Who art in Heaven…, Hail Mary, full of grace… (three times), Glory be to the Father, the Son…, O My God I’m heartily sorry for having offended You…, Angel of God my guardian dear…, St Michael the Archangel defend us in battle…, Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord…, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, we love you, save souls. She then sprinkles me with Holy Water (she keeps the bottle in the pocket of her robe), says I love you, kisses me on the cheek, and says Bon soir, bug as she walks out.

I became acquainted with the saints very early on. They were on their pedestals in church, on the windows, on prayer cards, around the house, in my coloring book. (I’m grievously sorry, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, that I colored your veil green and your face a motley range of reds and purples. I'm also sorry that this picture of you is of such questionable artistic merit.) I would get my mom to read me the Bible and the stories of the saints until I had them memorized and could correct her when she was reading to me and mis-spoke.

I was only partially joking when I said here that we bargain with the saints. I said the Prayer to St Joseph every single morning for years, lured by the promise of Christ visiting me on my death bed. I said any number of other prayers, and still do in a jiffy to get certain favors (my favorite is the Prayer to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, that is accompanied by the wonderful line “it has never been known to fail.”) My eyes light up like a kid's at Christmas when I see the words "Promises to those who say this prayer" next to the text itself. I think we Catholics salivate over those “say this prayer (this way) and (such-and-such) will happen” the way others must pick out their lottery numbers for the jackpot. But it's not really that it's works-based - it's how we know that they are holding our hands. In the same way someone is just an acquaintance until they give you a true gift, a sincere gift from their heart. It's how God and the saints become our intimates. Besides, I'm sure God knows we're human.

I loved reading of the martyrs like St. Cecilia, who had held her hands in a certain position and prayed for three days with her head only barely clinging to her trunk, I loved seeing bad pictures of St. Francis Xavier with a ball of fire above his head and having the facial expression of a man who is about to burst an aneurysm. I loved reading about all those young saints, so consumed with God’s love that it was literally consuming their bodies, and they were happily suffering and living on nothing but the Eucharist alone. St. Aloysius Gonzaga as a rosy-cheeked boy cherub. St. Rose of Lima undergoing all sorts of self-deprivations. St. Anthony of Padua being offered the Child Jesus by the Blessed Virgin. St. Rita of Cascia taking solace from the pain of a bad marriage in the pain of the suffering Christ.

We have saints that always knew they were going to be saints (St. Maria Goretti) and saints who got there initially kicking and screaming (St. Francis of Assisi). Saints who refused to fight (St. Martin of Tours) and ones who led armies (St. Joan of Arc). Saints that levitated during Mass (St. Joseph of Cupertino), and saints that fell asleep (St. Therese of Lisieux). Ones who were kings (St. Louis) and ones who did without great possessions (St. Anthony the Great). Ones who founded religious orders (St. Madeleine-Sophie Barat) and ones who did great things in existing ones (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). Ones whose lives are concealed behind myth and legend (St. Dymphna) and ones who kept diaries (St. Maria Faustina Kowalska). And on it goes. I risk irreverence here, but I always felt we Catholics could do a commercial: "We've got thin ones, tall ones, short ones, fat ones. Smart ones, silent ones, old ones, young ones. Mystics, peasants, nobles, confessors...."

I started reading the actual writings of the saints at a fairly young age. I read the writings of the Carmelites, Spiritual Exercises, St. Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, I read a book of Patristic writings while deliberately skipping everyone who wasn’t a saint - I checked my saint book first (so long, Origen and Tertullian), I even read chunks of Summa Theologica without knowing one single thing about scholasticism. (What I did know was that St. Thomas Aquinas had the sweetest, most quizzical expression on his face in my saints book for children). All I knew was that a saint had written it, so it must be good, and he wrote some cool things about God and human nature.

Around adolescence, I started to get into Catholic apologetics. I have an analytical mind, so it was fun to learn about all the disputes on soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, and all the other -ologies. Previously, I had never read a Council document. In the next ten years "for fun," I would read Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon; I would memorize canons and wordings from Councils; I'd read Patristic writings with an entirely different eye. I'd read modern Catholic theologians with an ear for edification, not illumination. I'd debate Protestants and correct my fellow Catholics, I'd chastize the poorly catechized and tell them to read, read, read. (Although those who honestly believe that Constantine founded the Roman Catholic Church and made Christianity a state religion DO need to read, read, read.) And then I got completely bored with it. Tired of it. It was an intellectual obsession that ultimately dead-ended for me. (Note: I am not criticizing Catholic apologists. Some great saints, like St. Francis de Sales, were apologists.) And it dead-ended because it was not where my heart was, it had no relation to the simply piety of my childhood. I took a two-year whirl through apologetics again, as someone close to me was considering Orthodoxy.

About six months ago, when the brouhaha over Benedict XVI’s Regensberg address was on-going, a friend sent me an article from the London Times that sought to address papal infallibility. I wrote what must have been a four page response, outlining every single way the article had gotten papal infallibility wrong, providing Scriptural passages, points of debate in Orthodox and Catholic circles, and so on. It felt so good to do and I was so sad that I hadn't saved it to admire my own brain's output. But after that triumphalist rush, I thought, "wow, that was a waste of time."

[Note: I hate when Catholics label themselves as traditionalist or neo or liberal or rad or whatever else, as if the Church is a political party and there are certain planks that define your position. For Heaven’s sake, if you are Catholic and feel you MUST label yourself, at least choose something that makes spiritual sense - something resonates with the rhythm of your heart and the melody of your soul. Say, “I’m in the beat of the Carmelites, to the melody of St. Teresa of Avila” or "I move to the rhythm of the Redemptorists, to St Gerard Majella's resounding baritone." Otherwise, you’re just talking about the ideas that bind your mind. (And the debate between Thomists and Molinists cannot slide in this way).]

I wonder, if I ever have children, what it is I will teach them. Maybe I'll read ecumenical council documents to them when they're still in utero. Will I whisper in their ears details of the Hesychast controversy while pushing them on the swing? Will I greet them every morning with a fact about humanism and sola scriptura? Will I demand discussions about the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity over the dinner table? Maybe I will tape pictures of Popes Hormisdas and Honorius I in their rooms, so Catholic-Orthodox debate will be natural to them. And I will put notes about free will and nature in their lunch boxes, to discuss with their friends at school. Maybe my children (by the age of 10!! God, I pray that in your infinite mercy and wisdom, you will give me genius children. Amen.) will finally figure out how Calvinists can believe in unconditional election and irresistible grace and yet care so much about what others do.

And yet this is outside the rhythm of my life. I like to pray the prayers I've known since childhood. I like the silly artwork and the medals. I like the variety. It has flavor, and I come from a family heritage that is a motley mix.

I began with the two images from my childhood for a reason. They are the images of St. Joseph:

O St. Joseph, I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms. Press His fine head and kiss Him for me, and ask Him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us.

And St. Anne teaching the Blessed Virgin:

Good St. Anne, mother of her Who is our Life, our Sweetness and our Hope, pray to her for us, and obtain our request.

The saints are everyday life. They are the rhythm, the ebb and flow. In the darkness, they are the medium through which God's light shines. They are family, and they have cool names and led awesome lives. Read about them, talk to them, get to know them. Find out what they have to say about Christ. They'll talk your head off, if you let them.


Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

I can't blog anymore!

I can't concentrate.

YOU know who I am thinking about.

AG said...

Pseudo-iamblichus, gain hold of yourself. The writings of St. John of the Cross send ME into ecstasy too, but this must of course be tempered with our daily obligations. The writings of St. Francis of Assisi are quite calming in this regard.

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"Allí me mostrarías
aquello que mi alma pretendía,
y luego me darías
allí tú, vida mía,
aquello que me diste el otro día:

el aspirar del aire,
el canto de la dulce filomena,
el soto y su donaire,
en la noche serena
con llama que consume y no da pena;"

The Beloved:

"There you shall show me,
That which my soul longed for,
There then you, my life and love, will give me thing which you showed me the other day:

The vigor of the air,
The song of the sweet nightengale,
The grove and its beauty,
In the still night,
With a flame that consumes
But does not burn."

-Cantico Espritual, San Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross).

Also, this:

"...esperé solo este lance,
y en esperar no fui falto,
pues fui tan alto, tan alto,
que le di a la caza alcance. "

I waited only for this catch

And in this my hope was not stunted,

For I climbed the ever ascending way,

And thus gave chase to the Hunted.

-"Tras un amoroso lance"

cg said...

I pray for your future children. No, I am not praying they will be geniuses...I just pray for them.

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Uhhhhh.... Remind me never to get into an argument with you. That was really, really splendid. Really splendid. Just a few observations:

Why not read Origen and Tertullian? Those are the two founts of theology in the Eastern and Western Churches.

St. Seraphim of Sarov used to tell young mothers to whisper the Jesus Prayer to their infants while nursing:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

You actually read Calvin? Is there something you HAVEN'T read. You make me feel like such a slouch.

I am a Roman Catholic stuck in the Byzantine rite lightly flavored with St. Therese, the Fathers of the Desert, the Cappodocian Fathers, and St. Maximos Confessor, with a hint of scholasticism and heavily topped with gallons and gallons of wailing Spanish Catholicism. (I like my crucifixes bloody, my Virgin Mary statues sad and ornately dressed, and my saints as kitschy as possible.)

Sorry I didn't read this sooner. I have been busy.... doing.....things....

AG said...

cg, thank you for praying for any children I may have in the future. We can all use all the prayers we can get.

"Remind me never to get into an argument with you."

Um, the title of this blog suggests that people shouldn't try to argue with me. I will always win, and they will feel very beaten up.

I have since read some Origen and Tertullian. But at the time, I interpreted their not being Saints to their writing not being any good (at least about God). But I was 12 or 13 at the time.

How could one whisper the Jesus Prayer to an infant? Children need to hear nothing but how wonderful they are, how they are perfect golden baubles, how they deserve an Xbox as soon as they start teething, etc. The Jesus Prayer would certainly hurt their developing self-esteem. (I'm only joking.)

Calvin's Institutes are alot of fun for someone with an analytical bent. I avoid St. Maximos the Confessor, and I could not make it through Meyendorff's "Christ in Eastern Christian Thought," if it makes you feel better. The philosophy was warping my brain.

Thank you for the wonderful writings from St. John of the Cross.